Nick Mamatas (nihilistic_kid) wrote,
Nick Mamatas

The Inevitability of Formulaic Writing in Literary Fiction: A Case Study

As is well known, literary fiction is not taken very seriously by superior readers because the form is essentially formula. The protagonists are stock characters, a small handful of dramatic situations are raked over time and again, innovation is despised and mere competence celebrated (literary writing is even called "a craft", along the lines of cabinetmaking or macramé), and all of the other elements of fiction are subsumed to tedious moral lessons suited primarily to the adolescents and arrested adolescents that read the stuff.

Because there is so much literary fiction out there—it is mass-produced and heavily subsidized by middle-class fortunes and tax write-offs—its readers often read the work too closely. 'It's not all the same!' the defenders of literary fiction often seem to say, 'sometimes, for example, a character might be black, or poor.' I'm reminded once of a child forty-year-old man child I once overheard explaining the difference to a friend between warp drives and stargates in two of his favorite, and otherwise identical, television shows. But these changes are most often surface-level window-dressing only, and the formulaic nature of literary fiction is baldly obvious to anyone with any level of emotional maturity and intellectual discernment.

Take, for instance, "Cool for America" by Andrew Martin in the latest number of The Paris Review. This story was chosen at random—it was placed after an interview I'd wanted to read in the journal—and at first I thought it was a personal essay of some sort, so I read the first page. This itself is proof of how ubiquitous formulae are in literary fiction; the first literary story I happened upon in some time fit all the well-know cliches to a T.

The protagonist of "Cool for America" is male, of course, and an instructor of course. In the slightest variation from the typical, he is a photographer rather than a writer or man of letters himself. He suffers an injury during a soccer game—it's typical of literary fiction that protagonists are incapable of performing routine masculinities, to better express bourgeois anxieties about the lower social orders—and is laid up in bed. He has few friends in Missoula, Montana, where he was teaching, until Chloe appears.

Chloe is the sort of woman who only appears in literary fiction. "She was pretty in a messy way—dark hair piled up on her head, a sharp bent nose and big mouth. I guessed she was five years older than me, midthirties. She was wearing ratty pink denim shorts that looked like they were about to fall apart."

The denim shorts are an objective correlative of sorts—of course Chloe and the protagonist will have an affair, and of course it will not end well. Such correlates are often introduced on the second page. It is important that Chloe be "messy" too, in order to be sexually accessible to the traditional literary reader—an undersexed older man concerned about his waning libido, or their female partners who delight in picking over the flaws of the sexually desirable fantasy women who populate literary stories. Indeed, type "pink shorts" into a Google Image search, and who shall appear as the very first hit?

Well, well...

Chloe takes care of our disabled protagonist, who otherwise sits around amidst a collection of pop culture detritus: The Price is Right, Big Star, Rear Window, and Rand Paul. These items are incongruous, almost nonsensical when put all together, but there it a fetish for the "well-observed" cultural artifact in the genre, so many writers just scatter them about their settings, willy nilly, perhaps hoping that the setting will seem real. Of course, the Hitchcock film and obscure band are the 'good' artifacts, the game show and libertarian politician are the 'bad' ones. This is how a literary reader knows which characters to identify with.

Simple morality also comes into play when we encounter Chloe's husband, Jim. We know he is bad—on the side of Rand Paul and The Price is Right—because he is a vital figure, with a motorbike and a rockclimbing hobby. He drinks to excess, and we're told he doesn't appreciate Chloe. This last tidbit comes from Lisa, a former student of the protagonist who hangs around during his convalescence. While Lisa doesn't seem to sleep with the protag, she is still nothing more than a stock character type, like all the rest of them. One presumes that she had been sleeping with the protag, as she comes by the house with a ukelele to sing the aforementioned Big Star songs to him. She informs us that Jim is insufficiently cool, while Chloe is "cool for America." ("The titular line" is an especially obnoxious bit of formulaic writing endemic to literary fiction.)

Jim's suspicions are aroused, and being the antagonist he makes a veiled threat and then punches the protagonist in the face, chipping a tooth. This is the so-called climax of the story. Stock villain Jim is impotent even in his potency and standard tropes demand that the protagonist end up with Chloe and then discover that he isn't happy about it when she appears at his home later, with bags that he cannot help carry. This is known as the epiphany, and its placement and sameness—the protagonist realizes that he is unhappy—is an essential part of the formula, in just the same way the "happily ever after" ending is to romance novels.

The story is pure wish-fulfillment, which is unsurprising for formula fiction. Indeed, the well-worn formula emerges from the the wish-fulfillment desires of the emotionally stunted readership. A man, younger than the typical reader, lives with no real means of support though he cannot work much, and a very attractive woman appears to wait on him and to perform sexual acts despite the man being essentially unattractive to her, or anyone. The story only works for readers of literary fiction because it is a trope—long years of reading such stories allow readers to suspend disbelief despite the unrealistic setting, poorly motivated characters, pat morality ("Careful what you wish for!") and casual snobbery against the proletarianized "other."

Most upsetting of all is that literary fiction has an inflated view of itself, as the literature of the human condition. That is, these people—the authors and the readers both—think that they're creating and consuming some Really Deep Stuff, and often complain that society no longer takes such formulaic material seriously. The poor dears, do they have no idea what they sound like when they speak of such things?

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